How Do We Deal With Non-Traditional Chinese Threats?

By Christopher Balding
Christopher Balding
Christopher Balding
Christopher Balding was a professor at the Fulbright University Vietnam and the HSBC Business School of Peking University Graduate School. He specializes in the Chinese economy, financial markets, and technology. A senior fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, he lived in China and Vietnam for more than a decade before relocating to the United States.
January 10, 2022Updated: January 14, 2022


The conviction of Harvard University professor Charles Lieber on fraud charges seems to have prompted more questions about how America should respond to non-traditional Chinese threats.

While the Chinese regime presents an unparalleled breadth and depth of threats both traditional and non-traditional, America struggles to deal with them. How do we maintain our American system of openness and address an enemy that seeks to use that very openness against us?

The Lieber case is instructive in how China operates and poses legal risks to Americans. Despite the journalistic and academic dramatic rhetoric to the contrary, the charges against Lieber were not about espionage or information that he may or may not have passed to Beijing. He was charged with much simpler crimes of lying on official funding documents and hiding income and assets received from work rendered for China. The specific points of the crimes seem well founded with even Lieber admitting he smuggled back large amounts of undeclared cash on his trips to China.

Questions have been raised about prosecutorial discretion and whether charges were really warranted. Given that the basic facts of lying on official documents and failing to report income have been applied to a variety of high-profile individuals—from ex-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort to Huawei royalty Meng Wanzhou—there is a clear pattern of using these charges against powerful, connected individuals. Furthermore, given the millions of dollars of compensation that Lieber failed to report or disclose on Federal funding applications, the severity clearly represented a material legal breach.

Universities have raised concerns about whether the government is restricting academic research and information flows. These issues are a bit thornier but remain clear. The crimes are not about information flows between countries but failure to disclose potential conflict of interests in research and income derived from work done for third parties.

Professor Charles Lieber 1
Harvard University nanotechnology professor Charles Lieber arrives at the federal courthouse in Boston, Mass., on Dec. 14, 2021. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

Think about this scenario in a slightly different manner. For example, imagine a company or an individual who does advanced research for Google and gives assurances that they are not doing research for any competitors or receiving compensation from competitors. Google then finds out that they are doing research for competitors and receiving funding from them. This would at least be the basis of a good civil suit and criminal charges.

The crimes are about disclosure and financing rather than working with other researchers. Academics and universities remain perfectly free to work with China-based professors and universities, but they must accurately disclose those activities when applying for federal funding and reporting income.

Given the focus on China, some have raised whether the China Initiative that ensnared Lieber is racist. While no claims have been raised that the charges against Lieber are racist given he is a white male, they have been raised about an upcoming case of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) professor Gang Chen. Even though the charges against Chen are nearly identical as Lieber’s with similar underlying facts, concerns have been raised about racial bias. All enforcement should be divorced from considerations of race and class.

The FBI field office in Boston that has brought headline-grabbing charges has a history of raising concerns about malign foreign state ties to research. In 2014, the FBI field office in Boston engaged in a campaign to raise awareness about Russian influence and access to sensitive technologies through venture capital firms. These were clearly not racially motivated but by concern over potentially malign influence and access to technology of adversarial states.

This fails to address the larger issues of how the United States should engage with an adversarial state that has adopted a civil-military fusion model to target American individuals and institutions everywhere. It also requires us to rethink and understand how we conceive of threats from an adversary—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Think tanks and universities accept money from CCP-linked individuals with contractual obligations about discussing the donor and an unwritten understanding about the direction of research content, mission alignment, and personnel. In addition to traditional security and intelligence services, China funds with billions of dollars a year a government department called the United Front—which is tasked with influencing foreign individuals, institutions, and securing sensitive technology.

To compound this problem, U.S. universities are actively avoiding legal obligations to provide information on foreign donors and resisting transparency efforts. Chinese government agents engagement in harassment of Americans and Chinese nationals living in the United States—with even university student groups subject to monitoring. Chinese intelligence maintains databases of professors, think tanks, and technology executives—marking them as “important” for their purposes. China is exploiting American openness to further its non-traditional national security objectives.

Entering this new threat theater, legal obligations to the state can only take us so far when dealing with a cunning adversary that’s willing to exploit our basest desires for money and sex. Though the Lieber case appears well founded factually, professors and universities need to reconsider their engagement with China beyond the purely monetary and consider the following: should we be engaging with the Chinese and how should we engage with them? Just because a technology researcher can engage with China, the time has come to ask if he/she should be engaging with China. There are too many examples of U.S. research ending up being used in Chinese security and oppression products. Even if it is legal, we need to ask whether we should.

The case of Lieber captures the dilemma perfectly. We need to move beyond what is legal in dealing with a whole-of-society civil-military fusion threat. Universities must hold themselves accountable to a higher moral and ethical standard in their engagement with China.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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